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Full Circle
Zhang Yang 张扬
Full Circle

Set more or less in the present time, Full Circle is a tragic-comic road movie about a group of old people in a retirement home in northern China who seek to enter a Japanese TV talent competition being held in Tianjin. When the nursing home management and their families forbid them to do so, several of them organise a break-out and set off in an ancient bus across the Inner Mongolian steppe, with the Administrative Head and Chief Nurse of the nursing home in pursuit.

The film's Chinese title (often translated as “Flying over the Hospice” or "One Flew Over the Old People's Home") clearly alludes to Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but instead of emulating the dark tones of Forman's 1970s classic movie, Zhang Yang presents a bitter-sweet family drama and tragi-comedy in the classic Chinese cinematic tradition. Full Circle is both a comedy-drama and a road movie that portrays its aged protagonists as actively seeking to escape from the place and the role that society has sought to impose on them, and in the process draws our attention to the difficult and depressing conditions in which many old people are forced to live and the progressive undermining of traditional family values in contemporary China. The film's message is ultimately one of hope, about people's desire for the freedom to pursue their dreams, however impracticable they may seem, at any age, and the need to acknowledge that, as one character says, there comes a time in every parent's life when they have to think of themselves for once, after a lifetime of self-sacrifice for their children.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing)


Zhang Yang (b. Beijing, 1967) is one of the best-known of the so-called 'Sixth' or 'Urban Generation' of Chinese film-makers. Ever since his directorial debut in the late 1990s, he has demonstrated a consistent talent for addressing sensitive themes of interest to the mainstream Chinese public in popular, entertaining and politically acceptable ways, without falling foul of the censorship. Following his directorial debut with Spicy Love Soup (爱情麻辣烫) in 1997, Shower was Zhang Yang's second feature film, and from this point onwards until recently all his films, including Quitting (2001), Sunflower (2005) and Getting Home (2008), have been variations on the classic Chinese 'family-separation' genre (lunli qingqing pian), or 'ethical family-affection-language films', which has been a recurring strand in Chinese-language theatre and cinema since the 1950s and even earlier. In this genre, the family home - or, in the case of Shower, the family bath-house - frequently becomes the setting where conflicts between tradition and modernity are played out.

The CastThe cast consists of some of the best-known figures of Chinese movie history, renowned actors mostly in their seventies and over. Old Zhou is played by the 72-year-old Wu Tianming, a key 'Fourth Generation' director/producer and former head of the Xi’an Film Studio in the 1980s, who directed many well-known and highly regarded films including Life (Rensheng, 1984), Old Well (Laojing, 1987) and The King of Masks (Bianlian, 1995). Veteran actor and director Xu Huanshan, who plays Old Ge, Jiang Hualing (1936-2012) in his last screen performance and the 84-year-old Tian Hua, star of the 1950 film adaptation of The White Haired Girl , together with renowned actress Siqin Gaowa in a cameo role as an elderly Mongolian nomad, all deliver impressive performances in a delightful trip down memory lane for Chinese audiences. They all help to make the film more attractive and accessible for older audiences and a most welcome change from the shuaige meinü (handsome boy and beautiful girl) formula of so many commercial Chinese movies of recent years.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing)


Although superficially a fairly pleasant and safe environment in which to spend one's last years, the Guanshan Nursing Home in northern China is the setting for many sad stories. Nearly all of its elderly residents either have no living relations or have been abandoned by their children for various reasons. Some of the inmates are weak, senile and simply waiting to die, but others are still active and are finding interesting and creative things to do in their old age. Despite the fact that all the residents receive adequate care and nourishment and are not mistreated, none of them see the nursing home as their real home and none are able to leave.

Old Ge (Xu Huanshan), a retired bus driver, is forced to leave his home when his second wife dies and must squeeze into a room at the nursing home together with his old friend and fellow-driver Zhou. For his part, Old Zhou (Wu Tianming), who is carefully concealing a terminal illness, would like to be reunited with his daughter, with whom he lost contact many years previously, before he dies. The only information he has about her whereabouts is that she has moved to Japan, so he plans to appear on Japanese television hoping that she will see him. Zhou recruits some of his fellow residents in the home to perform a comic sketch dressed as animated Ma Jong tiles and enter 'Super Skit’, a Japanese TV talent competition. During rehearsals, two of the group are slightly injured, and the head nurse forbids them to take part in the competition unless all their families agree. However, the families unanimously refuse their consent, which prompts several of the elderly performers to devise an elaborate escape plan and set off across the country in an ancient bus rescued from a scrapyard to participate in the local round of the talent competition being held in the port city of Tianjin.

After a series of chance encounters and adventures en route, which have the effect of drawing the elderly fugitives closer together, deepening their mutual understanding and insight, and helping to build bridges between long-estranged fathers and sons, the old people do eventually reach Tianjin and perform their sketch to general acclaim. However, Zhou's illness has reached its final stage and when the time comes for the performers to return to the Nursing Home, they must leave him by the shores of the Yellow Sea. But his memory and influence live on, and the final scene in which his last moments are re-enacted symbolically with the aid of repurposed bicycle wheels and chains makes it clear that thanks to his inspiration, a fundamental change of heart has taken place in the nursing home regime and in the hitherto deeply conflicted relations between fathers and sons among the residents' families. Old Zhou's legacy has benefitted all, young and old alike, and holds out the possibility that in future all their lives can become more creative and more harmonious and that their health and well-being will be correspondingly enhanced.

Full Circle is of particular interest for Chinese Medical Humanities in three quite different ways:

1) By raising awareness of a number of specific medical and psychological problems particularly affecting the elderly in care, including the onset of incontinence and dementia, depression and attempted suicide and the importance of mental stimulation, creativity and useful occupations for the elderly.

2) By posing the question whether and, if so, to what extent high levels of individual well-being can co-exist with serious, even terminal, illness, both in the elderly and in younger people, an issue highlighted in the portrayal of the terminally ill but constantly active Old Zhou;

3) By highlighting the limits to medicine and medical paternalism in dealing with mature, responsible adults who are not necessarily ‘ill’ in any generally acknowledged way, as appears to be the case with many of the inmates of the Guanshan Nursing Home.

Despite its outwardly crowd-pleasing cinematic style and mode of address, Full Circle manages to raise a remarkable number of difficult and often highly sensitive issues relating specifically to the medical and social care of the elderly. These include the onset of incontinence and dementia; depression and suicide or attempted suicide; the effects of loneliness, neglect, and loss of personal freedom, and the sense not only of having been abandoned by one’s own children but of having long outlived one’s usefulness to society at large.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College, London)


Full Circle is a mainstream commercial movie made in an avowedly popular and frankly sentimental and crowd-pleasing manner. It is full of nice, heart-warming images, a lot of surreal visual humour, simple but highly effective visual cues and symbols (a flower-pot, a paper dart, wild flowers and galloping wild horses on the Mongolian steppe, sunrise over the Yellow Sea, etc.), and is accompanied by a lush, sentimental musical score. For older Chinese audiences, it is also a real nostalgia feast, as most of the principal cast are veteran film actors, actresses and directors from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a veritable hall of fame of Chinese cinema and live theatre from the heyday of Maoist socialism and its immediate aftermath. With the aid of humour, warm colour tones, some clever camera work and enhanced 'natural' lighting, the film does its best to keep its audience entertained and well primed with feel-good factor even about old age, infirmity and fast-approaching death.

From the very early scene in which Old Zhou reveals his talents as an illusionist and variety performer, through the subsequent scenes in which the wheelchair-bound but very active Mr. Lin (Wang Deshun) gets all the residents moving and helps kick-start their imaginations with the aid of his ghetto blaster and improvised robotic excavator, director Zhang employs a wealth of surreal visual images to draw the audience's attention to the largely untapped or neglected reserves of creative ability among the elderly, and the great potential benefits both to the elderly and to society as a whole from allowing these talents and experience more free expression. In addition, in the second half of the movie, Zhang presents us with a visually powerful demonstration of the subjective interplay between natural phenomena and man's inner feelings in the aesthetic and philosophical construction of a work of art. In the course of the epic bus journey across the steppe, Zhang's depiction of nature as a beautiful open space contrasts with the somewhat claustrophobic enclosed spaces of the traditional old courtyard house in which the old people are housed and with the concrete maze which awaits them in downtown Tianjin. The sight of a herd of wild horses galloping across the Mongolian steppe seems to re-energise the old people on the bus, while much later, sunrise over the Yellow Sea is juxtaposed with the end of life in a way which subtly appeals to Chinese spiritual traditions without being specifically religious. All these aspects contribute to the display of a Chinese aesthetic conception that resonates with the abstractions and ambiguities of classical Chinese painting and, at the same time, conveys a highly political sense of the alienation of contemporary urban man and his need to liberate himself by reconnecting with nature.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

  • What are the challenges facing care of the elderly and dying?
  • What are the specific challenges facing China?
  • How does this film represent them?
  • Are the elderly better supported within the community or in specialized communities?
  • How does the breakdown of the traditional Chinese family impact on the elderly?
  • What are the opportunities for empowering the elderly?
  • How can the elderly be mobilized to support younger generations?

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London) and Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing)